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To Greece

The Front Weakens

The Front Weakens

On the following day, 23 April, the insecurity of the Brallos- Thermopylae position became more apparent. Away to the west in Epirus there had at first been no noticeable movement of the German forces, but that afternoon reports5 came in of hundreds of trucks moving south. As they could possibly reach Delphi within twenty-four hours, General Blamey saw to it that the road eastwards from Amfissa was blocked for motor traffic and that a small

5 Actually the German advance had not begun; they were probably Greek vehicles.

page 378 force—an Australian battalion with a troop of artillery and a company of machine-gunners—was established just east of Levadhia to cover the demolitions in the road.

On the eastern flank there were now signs of German activity. The patrol from the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry Regiment, continuing its movement through the island of Euboea, found some eighty Australians and New Zealanders,1 once members of Allen Force, who were certain that the enemy was coming over from the mainland. Shortly afterwards several Germans were seen but no action took place and the patrol returned to the mainland. The great swing bridge at Khalkis was then to have been wrecked by a detachment from 7 Field Company, but before it arrived engineers from 1 Armoured Brigade destroyed the mechanism, leaving it wide open and impossible for the enemy to close. After that the channel coast was covered by C Company 1 Rangers.

The wrecking of the bridge had been due to a change in the plan of withdrawal. Divisional Headquarters had been advised that 6 Brigade would not move to Euboea but would withdraw to the beaches east of Athens for embarkation on the night of 26–27 April. There had also been a suggestion that the Division would retire to Athens by the northern route through Khalkis and Marathon and that the Divisional Cavalry Regiment should move back to support C Company 1 Rangers. However, General Freyberg considered that he needed the regiment as a rearguard; in any case, its vehicles were hastily being reconditioned after the long withdrawal from the Katerini area. So when Corps assumed that the Division would follow the coastal road, Freyberg rather frigidly informed General Blamey that he had already made plans for the Division to take the inland route through Thebes-Elevsis-Athens. The subsequent orders from Corps were for him to take such action as was then possible to cover the right flank and to support the Rangers. And later he did order the Divisional Cavalry Regiment to send one squadron to the Khalkis area to assist the 1 Armoured Brigade units should there be any landing from Euboea.

The day was also notable for the increased severity of the air attacks along the south coast. The columns of vehicles moving along the historic road between Elevsis and Corinth suffered heavy damage. Stukas damaged ships in Salamis Bay, and Dorniers when machine-gunning the road round the cliffs surprised a Greek mule transport column and just slaughtered the unfortunate animals. The Royal Air Force, now operating from the landing fields near Argos, had been reinforced with five Hurricanes from Crete, but that evening when the majority of the aircraft were on the ground thirty

1 See p. 344.

page 379
Draft of message from General Freyberg to General Blamey on 23 April 1941 on withdrawal route of the New Zealand Division from Thermopylae. Copied from General Staff Branch war diary, April 1941

Draft of message from General Freyberg to General Blamey on 23 April 1941 on withdrawal route of the New Zealand Division from Thermopylae. Copied from General Staff Branch war diary, April 1941

page 380 to forty Me110s appeared over the area. The Bofors opened up but they were soon silenced. The Germans, almost unopposed, then destroyed one Hurricane in the air and thirteen on the ground. The remaining aircraft could not have covered the evacuation; the odds were too great. So that same day orders were issued for their withdrawal to Crete to defend Suda Bay and to assist No. 30 Squadron in protecting the convoys.

The Royal Air Force authorities then made1 their own arrangements for the evacuation of the ground staff. On 24 April over 2000 men were taken south by train and motor transport, several hundred to Yithion and the majority to Kalamata. From there it was thought that they could be taken, at night and in fishing vessels, to the island of Kithira and eventually to Crete.

With no air support from the mainland, Rear-Admiral Baillie- Grohman then decided that if the embarkations were to be kept secret the convoys must not approach the beaches until one hour after dark and that all ships must leave by 3 a.m. This would give them some chance of clearing the coast without being observed and of coming within the area covered during daylight by the fighters operating from Crete.

In the Thermopylae area the enemy, as on 22 April, awaited the arrival of reinforcements from Larisa and was satisfied with long-range shellfire and more active patrols. To check one active battery to the east of Imir Bei and out of range of 25-pounders, three guns of 64 Medium Regiment were brought up to the Molos area, but even then the aircraft landing near Imir Bei and the column of vehicles streaming into Lamia were well out of range. The best that could be done was to harass any movement of men and transport towards the river and the Alamanas bridge.

More direct action came about 4 p.m. when Germans on bicycles and motor-cycles rode up to the Sperkhios River and crossed the demolished bridge. To deal with this group the 23 Battalion detachment was ordered to send out patrols to the right and to the left of the bridge. But the platoon commanders, after receiving their orders, were unable to reach their sections because of the enemy's steady machine-gun fire. Lieutenant McPhail thereupon set out to do alone what he had been ordered to accomplish with a patrol. Armed with a tommy gun, this determined officer went forward and shot two of ten Germans who were clambering over the bridge. On his way back he met two other Germans, one of whom he shot. After this resistance, and no doubt because of the harassing fire from 6 Field Regiment, there were no further attempts by the enemy to patrol beyond the river.

1 Air Vice-Marshal Arthur S. Gould Lee, Special Duties, pp. 93–5.